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Square Word Calligraphy: English that Looks Like Chinese
August 27, 2012 9:56 PM   Subscribe

English that looks like Chinese. "At first glance, Square Word Calligraphy appears to be nothing more unusual than Chinese characters, but in fact it is a new way of rendering English words in the format of a square so they resemble Chinese characters. Chinese viewers expect to be able to read Square Word Calligraphy but cannot. Western viewers, however are surprised to find they can read it. Delight erupts when meaning is unexpectedly revealed." (Britta Erickson, The Art of Xu Bing.)

"At first glance, Square Word Calligraphy appears to be nothing more unusual than Chinese characters, but in fact it is a new way of rendering English words in the format of a square so they resemble Chinese characters. Chinese viewers expect to be able to read Square Word Calligraphy but cannot. Western viewers, however are surprised to find they can read it. Delight erupts when meaning is unexpectedly revealed." (Britta Erickson, The Art of Xu Bing, as quoted in Language Education in China by Agnes S.L. Lam, Hong Kong University Press, 2005, viewable in Google Books).

1. Xu Bing's original project from 1994. Can you read it?
2. Omniglot has a variation on the system which was apparently developed by David B. Kelley in 2012 in order to use more Chinese-like elements.

As noted on the Omniglot page, the process here is reminiscent of Korean Hangul writing, which combines a elements from a phonetic alphabet into square block characters.
posted by jef (66 comments total) 66 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wait, is this the first MeFi post on Xu Bing? Interested parties should definitely read about his Book From the Sky, or watch this video with John Cayley on the subject.

I was fortunate to take a few courses with Cayley, who could go off track but always brought something lucid to conversations. I will always remember when he was not in the least offended, but very amused to learn some students had secretly created an IRC bot to imitate the way he talked.
posted by 23 at 10:15 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is neat! I should point out that the 'English that looks like Chinese' link and the 'original project' link from point 1 are the same link, though.
posted by mikurski at 10:27 PM on August 27, 2012


So it is writing with all the downsides of Chinese (Can't typeset, a pain to write), and English (Takes lots of characters to represent anything). I fail to see the point.
posted by Canageek at 10:28 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm Chinese, and this totally confused me. I kept trying to parse the characters, but I can't even seem to read them in English.

(Is the "Western-viewer" response supposed to be immediate or near-immediate recognition? Can you guys share your reading experiences?) Anyway, this is cool, thanks.
posted by undue influence at 10:29 PM on August 27, 2012


Underneath the sample text on the Omniglot link, there is a translation. Once I could compare the translation to the sample text, I was THEN able to read the text.
posted by _paegan_ at 10:31 PM on August 27, 2012


I'm in love with this not only because I'm always looking for new varieties of unheimlich, but also because -- can I be the only one who thinks this? -- I'm a little bit racist in this way where I don't always believe in other alphabets. Like, I see Cyrillic, and a small part of my brain says, "nah, that doesn't mean anything, they're messing with you."
posted by insteadofapricots at 10:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


It took a second, but I was able to read the text easily (native English speaker here).
posted by rtha at 10:33 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


I fail to see the point.

Psst, it's art.
posted by adamdschneider at 10:34 PM on August 27, 2012 [25 favorites]


I'm not sure whether I want the Games Magazine people to know about this.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:38 PM on August 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


(Is the "Western-viewer" response supposed to be immediate or near-immediate recognition? Can you guys share your reading experiences?)

Once I understood the nature of what was being done with the letters/words, I was able to read them fairly easily.
posted by Avenger at 10:38 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Confusing for me as the use of Korean hangul elements makes it very readable. Provided, tht is, that you are sufficiently bad at Korean. For example, LOST in the example could be mroon, with a backwards r...
posted by Iteki at 10:43 PM on August 27, 2012


Lit-elle messe, moffette
Satan ne te fête,
Et digne somme coeurs et nouez.
À longue qu'aime est-ce pailles d'Eure.
Et ne Satan bise ailleurs
Et ne fredonne messe. Moffette, ah, ouais!
posted by benito.strauss at 10:43 PM on August 27, 2012 [25 favorites]


Western-viewer in the process of learning Korean - It took me a minute to stop "seeing" Chinese, parse it as Korean, and finally read it in English - but once I got it, it was very easy to keep getting it.
posted by nile_red at 10:58 PM on August 27, 2012


A classic example.
posted by chavenet at 11:05 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


The work consists of a performance by two live breeding pigs. These two pigs are introduced to an enclosed exhibition area filled with books in different languages. Unreadable characters are printed all over the bodies of the two pigs. The print on the male pig resembles written English and the print on the female pig resembles Chinese. During the performance the two animals begin to mate inside the exhibition area.
A Case Study of Transference; performance / mixed media installation: male and female live pigs printed in false English and Chinese scripts, books; 1994-1995

first post!
posted by dj glib c at 11:10 PM on August 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is nice: Xu Bing's "Nursery Rhyme Four: Black Sheep." Read it top to bottom, left to right. The image is quite large, if you open it on its own.

(Also, jef, if you didn't mean for the first and second links to be the same, you can give us the correct link here for either one, and I can change it in the post.)
posted by taz at 11:14 PM on August 27, 2012


Is the "Western-viewer" response supposed to be immediate or near-immediate recognition? Can you guys share your reading experiences?

on the initial link, the image of the hand writing beneath a two-page spread: the text being written is the nursery rhyme about a shepherdess who has lost her flock. It is immediately apparent. Left untranscribed here deliberately.

Sent this link to an American pal of Polish ethnicity who is fluent in written and spoken Chinese and practices Chinese calligraphy as part of his art practice. Cannot wait to hear how it bends his brain. Bet he loves it.
posted by mwhybark at 11:19 PM on August 27, 2012


Similar in principle to "foreign look" fonts, as usually seen on Chinese restaurant menus.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Benito, I was just about to post "Un p'tit d'un p'tit s'étonne aux Halles..."
posted by en forme de poire at 11:25 PM on August 27, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hi, sorry, yes they are the same link. Shouldn't have put it on there twice, but it wasn't an error, just bad stylistic judgement. (I thought it would be helpful to have one link on the front page, but then I wanted to put both inside where you could see them.) Sorry, it's my first time! Anyway I don't necessarily have another link to provide in its place, but one could be removed if that were deemed to be the correct course of action.
posted by jef at 11:26 PM on August 27, 2012


(Is the "Western-viewer" response supposed to be immediate or near-immediate recognition? Can you guys share your reading experiences?) Anyway, this is cool, thanks.
posted by undue influence at 6:29 on August 28 [+] [!]


I found it similar to those Magic Eye posters. It looks like Chinese and then suddenly it switches into English, and once you see it you can't unsee it.
posted by ambivalentic at 11:28 PM on August 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm a westerner (native English speaker) and I found I could read them pretty easily, but I also understood the concept before I tried, and also I have experience reading Chinese characters and I don't know if that helps with some things like knowing which order to read the "letters" in, etc.
posted by jef at 11:31 PM on August 27, 2012


Hah ceribus peribus, Games Magazine is the first thing I thought of when I saw these. Sometimes I really miss what Games used to be.
posted by scrowdid at 11:40 PM on August 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


This looks like fun. No, couldn't read it, even with the 'alphabet'
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:22 AM on August 28, 2012


That makes my brain hurt.
posted by LordSludge at 12:23 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Native English speaker here - I can read the nursery rhymes, but mostly because I already know what they say. If there is a word I don't remember, I have a hard time figuring it out from the character.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:41 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am an L2 English speaker, with Finnish as my first language. I can read these, but it takes time. I think this takes away my ability to recognize whole words at a glance and that really cuts into my reading efficiency.

I also think being roughly familiar with Chinese calligraphy and writing helped me in finding the right order to read the components of the characters. At least it seemed mostly to be what I expected it to be--start from here, then go there and so on. Not knowing actual written Chinese beyond a few characters in turn helped me not to try to interpret them as Chinese.

I enjoyed these. Good post!
posted by tykky at 1:15 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Native English Speaker here and when I clicked into the first link I immediately saw Bo, then Peep, so I looked for Little and then found Sheep. The nature of the nursery rhyme allowed me to see Little to be honest but I did not see that I could read it around if that makes sense until I read one of the comments on here.
posted by Wilder at 1:51 AM on August 28, 2012


两仨亇丹仠丨乚亇乇乃
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:02 AM on August 28, 2012 [27 favorites]


I saw a great exhibit of his work at the Freer? Sackler Gallery? ...in DC. There were computers set up for kids at the end of the exhibit where you could type on a regular keyboard, and what you typed would be spat out in Square Word. I've always wanted that on my own computer.
posted by ersatzkat at 3:11 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every attempt thus far:

Me: Read this.
Eyes: Trying!
Brain: Chinese characters. Unable to compute. Disengaging eyes.
Me: Yeah, I know, it looks like Chinese, but it's actually in English. Trust me.
Eyes: Trying.
Brain: Unable to execute. Possible corruption of OS. Shutting down.
Me: Dammit!
posted by likeso at 3:32 AM on August 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


I think that if the text wasn't such a familiar, uh, text, these would be a lot harder to read. It's much easier to spot the jumbled-together letters of a word when you already know what the word is.
posted by ook at 4:29 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the huge fake Hebrew map of the USA in the Eleven City Diner in Chicago, which you can only tell is English when you read it in the mirror above the bar.
posted by unknowncommand at 4:30 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Xu Bing came to one of my college art classes and showed us this system. I don't remember too much about what he was like personally, but it was seriously rad. We all chose words/short phrases to write in Square Word and I chose "BEANS" because I am kind of mundane and beans are funny.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:43 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Being a native English speaker who studied Chinese for three years, this is so fucking cool.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 4:47 AM on August 28, 2012


Works in Latin, too:

O SIBILE SI ERGO
FORTIBUS ES IN ERO
O NOBILI DEIS TRUX
VATES ENIM
CAUS AN DUX
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:07 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


sator
arepo
tenet
opera
rotas

posted by jenkinsEar at 5:23 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It was just a skosh more difficult to read than an Asian restaurant's sign in a "Chop Suey" font.
posted by sourwookie at 5:53 AM on August 28, 2012


Praise: It's neat-looking

Caveat: I think I like his book idea better

Grump: This is a little like the old Spencer Gifts poster with the "Chinese" guy and something like "Old Confucian Saying" and then a jumble of pseudo-Chinese characters when read sidewise could be seen to read "Go Fuck Yourself." Only, you know, more artistic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:55 AM on August 28, 2012


Very neat, if (apparently) hard for some people to grasp (is it a serious proposal for a writing system? Hint: NO! is it anything like racist novelty posters? Hint: NO!). Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 6:04 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


O SIBILE SI ERGO
FORTIBUS ES IN ERO
O NOBILI DEIS TRUX
VATES ENIM
CAUS AN DUX


I miss my high school Latin class SO MUCH.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:05 AM on August 28, 2012


This is quite clever (as someone who reads English and is only passably literate in a Chinese menu).

I would speculate that Koreans might find this more intuitive, as Hangul is based on "cramming letterforms into a square box".
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 6:17 AM on August 28, 2012


Someone should tell those fucking leet speak kids about this.
posted by Fizz at 6:35 AM on August 28, 2012


It's much easier to spot the jumbled-together letters of a word when you already know what the word is.

It's also much easier if you know a little about stroke order — I'm no expert, but I think that, from the point of view of Chinese calligrapy, the English letters are not jumbled together but simply in the correct order.
posted by stebulus at 6:45 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, wait, tykky already made that point.

Scooped!
posted by stebulus at 6:53 AM on August 28, 2012


Each individual radical is one Roman letter.

They are ordered left-to-right and then top-to-bottom, which sounds intuitive, but wasn't for me, because there might be any number of letters in a given quadrant, so I can't predict when I have to look to the right. I'm used to using an algorithm like "continue right until the end of the line, then reset to first column, next row", which doesn't work here.

When one letter has a big empty space, there's another letter inside of it, which is the next one to read.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:05 AM on August 28, 2012


Too hungover to read
posted by nathancaswell at 7:25 AM on August 28, 2012


两仨亇丹仠丨乚亇乇乃

Jiang shi.

HE COMES.
posted by griphus at 7:50 AM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh my gosh I completely love this.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:55 AM on August 28, 2012


I also think being roughly familiar with Chinese calligraphy and writing helped me in finding the right order to read the components of the characters.

I'm no expert, but I think that, from the point of view of Chinese calligrapy, the English letters are not jumbled together but simply in the correct order.

Ah! I did not realize that; thank you! I know nothing about Chinese calligraphy so this detail passed me by completely.
posted by ook at 8:47 AM on August 28, 2012


David B. Kelly's version is really beautiful and artistic. I like that it's not deterministic but requires some craft in how to arrange the letters for a given word.

I'd love to see a whole book written that way. Or maybe just a poem made into a big coffee-table book.
posted by straight at 8:52 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Native English speaker here. I got Bo, then Peep, and familiarity with the rhyme made it pretty easy to look for/read the other words. When I first looked, though, I did not see the patterns and wonder if it's easier for someone familiar with character-based writing systems.

I remember a fellow in Thailand who developed a Roman script that looks Thai. When he originally offered it, he listed one of the Cons as "Thai people can't read it" -- with a wink.
posted by jaruwaan at 9:31 AM on August 28, 2012


Someone write "Drink your Ovaltine" with this.
posted by FJT at 10:07 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


PATENT #2048012257-1 IMPROVED SYSTEM FOR DESIGNING ACCURATE TATTOO
posted by circular at 11:38 AM on August 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Scripts like this remind me of a tale from one of those "Amazing But True!!!" books I devoured as a tween*.

According to this book**, a farmer brought a mysterious tablet in to a university on the East Coast. Language experts tried, to no avail, to break its code; guesses were made of what ancient language the script was from/related to.

Naturally, as these stories always go, the text was finally cracked by a janitor. In the streaming light of late afternoon, the shadows lept out, and revealed that it said (in English):
June 3, 1789. Am drunk again.

*Not literally. My gut doesn't contain the proper bacteria.

** Which automatically establishes the base credibility at -500%.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What would the practical use of something like this be? I mean it's entertaining and perhaps it would make a witty tattoo of sorts. It is neat the way the brain slowly breaks down it's "seeing" as it parses through recognition of patterns, I mean it makes you realize how incredible the human mind is, but also how controlled and specific becomes.

This also reminded me of those 3-D books that were so big in the early 90s with two seemingly identical stereo images that slowly refocus into a "3D" image as the eyes relax and re-calibrate for a different depth, allowing for the images to superimpose one another.
posted by Skygazer at 12:33 PM on August 28, 2012


I don't know enough about linguistics to figure out how to do it, but I bet there's an interesting research project in getting people to decipher texts written in this format.
posted by immlass at 12:46 PM on August 28, 2012


What would the practical use of something like this be?

If you absolutely HAD to come up with one... it might, perhaps, be a good way of integrating English loan words into Chinese writing. As it stands now, words transliterated into Chinese are often written by combining a bunch of characters that sound like English syllables, so it sounds correct but looks sort of awkward and nonsensical. Maybe this Square Word stuff could be to Chinese what pinyin is to English! (I really sincerely doubt it though)
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:11 PM on August 28, 2012


You've all seen Mark Rosenfelder's If English was written like Chinese, right?
posted by jiawen at 1:39 PM on August 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


OH GOD YES

So back when I was teaching, my institution had had a rash of students doctoring graded assignments and then coming back to argue for a better when grade. My solution has been to write notes in the few Klingon phrases I know transcribed in Tengwar Elvish script in places where I suspected funny business might happen so I could theoretically always translate it back for an academic misconduct hearing. Next time I start teaching again I will totally lay out the translated Klingon transcribed in Tengwar script as fake pictograms moving up the page.

I have way to much fun with my work.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:22 PM on August 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, Hangul has one syllable per square block. That seems easier than this system where you can get an arbitrary number of letters crammed into a single block.

(Seriously, nobody has pointed this out yet?)
posted by madcaptenor at 6:40 PM on August 28, 2012


adamdschneider: I dislike art that has pretensions of being a communication method. We have enough trouble making documents look good as it is, given Word's terrible layout math, and the fact no one is willing to learn LaTeX. Or am I just being the grumpy scientist?

Also, I'm probably biased as I have a learning disability that means I see words by shape, not letters, so if someone actually tries to write in this, I'm boned. I can read two of them, but my reading speed on this is going to be measured in wpm, not wps like normal.

I'm the one who keeps grumping about how cursive needs to die in a fire, in case you aren't aware.
posted by Canageek at 8:42 AM on August 30, 2012


I dislike art that has pretensions of being a communication method.

Now stop that before one of the monks working on the Book of Kells hears you. If he lets a tear drop on his work, he's going to have to start the whole page over again.
posted by straight at 9:16 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or am I just being the grumpy scientist?

I think maybe you're grumpy that people won't/don't/can't communicate in your preferred method, which may not be the best way for them to communicate. LaTex would do zero for me, in terms of communicating with the people I communicate with in writing, except be a huge timesuck to learn a method that no one else I write to or for regularly knows or needs to know.

The method in this post is unlikely to take over the world of written communication, and I'm pretty sure that's not its point. The journals you publish in are not going to adopt it. It's just a neat way of looking at different kinds of written forms. And it's pretty. Nothing wrong with either of those.
posted by rtha at 9:27 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I dislike art that has pretensions of being a communication method.

How do you distinguish that from art which is about communication methods?
posted by stebulus at 11:29 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Skygazer: What would the practical use of something like this be?
Stylistic fonts and "calligraphy tricks" like this (for want of a better phrase) are frequently used in the SCA to make persona-appropriate-looking awards for members whose personas are Asian.

Not a huge application, granted, but it exists. Obviously Western text alongside a Japanese or Chinese classically styled watercolor is somewhat jarring; OTOH actual (historical) Chinese language would not be readable to most of the intended audience.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:44 PM on August 30, 2012


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